By Mark Wallace
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Things just keep getting worse and worse for HS2. After the IEA's cost warning, the revised financial estimates by Treasury officials and the criticism of the scheme by Alistair Darling and this site's own Tim Montgomerie, now it turns out even its target market don't want it.
A survey of 1,300 business leaders, carried out by the Institute of Directors, shows that 70 per cent think that HS2 offers them no improvement in productivity.
Aha, supporters cry, of course the majority wouldn't expect to benefit directly, as HS2 is targeted at particular regions. That's true, but unfortunately for them only 29 per cent of the business directors polled in the North West think it offers good value for money.
There's also a handy reminder that Yorkshire and the North West are not the sum total of "the North" – support in the neglected North East is even lower. In fact, in no region of the UK do more than 35 per cent of those polled think HS2 is good value for money – and this is from a survey carried out before the IEA and Treasury's higher cost estimates were released.
This is severely damaging stuff. One might expect free marketeer deficit hawks to oppose HS2 (I plead guilty), and one might even expect Treasury officials not to see an upside to it (they did notoriously oppose the construction of the M25, after all).
But this has been sold all along as a business-friendly project. The Prime Minister has described it as an essential component of his "global race" – and yet business people, the athletes who will be running that race for all of us, see it as pointless at best.
That has economic and political implications. Economically, these are opinions we should respect – who knows better which public policies will facilitate growth than the businesses themselves? As the IoD's Simon Walker puts it, "businesses know value for money when they see it, and [this] research shows that they don’t see it in the Government’s case for HS2".
This revelation also undermines the political logic of the scheme. HS2 has always been something of a trade off – Cameron has been willing to risk losing votes along the route in return for more votes at the end of the line.
Now it turns out that not only is there stronger than expected opposition by the planned track, and widespread concern about the cost of the project, but there is little support even among those who are supposedly going to be the great beneficiaries. The political case, as well as the business case, is collapsing.
ConservativeHome rarely has a problem finding an MP to put any given viewpoint across. The Commons houses a multitude of opinions, and most Conservatives are fans of the site. But HS2 has proved an exception – try as we might, it is nigh on impossible to find anyone who supports it any more.
Personally, I see the benefit of the right kind of infrastructure. We undoubtedly need more airport capacity, for example – it is no coincidence that private finance is queueing up to provide it, even though the government is sitting in the way.
I also share Andrew Smith's enthusiasm for a return to the ambitious, confident days of grand engineering projects. But the Victorians were good at engineering not just because they built big things and built them well – they built things which were necessary.
The problem is not the specifics of the line (though building it without having decided where our airport hub is going to be is an embarrassing farce). The problem is not even the unreliability of Government cost projections (though the budget is sure to be overshot). The real problem is, as Allister Heath pointed out earlier this year, that the technology is already obsolete.
Rail is inflexible, as well as expensive, and much of the supposedly wasted travel time is in fact already used for work by business travellers. Cars, on the other hand, can take you from any given A to any given B in the entire country, and are on the cusp of a self-driving revolution which will convert travel time into productive spare hours in one fell swoop.
The Government must change tack before it's too late. Bulldozing ahead with an expensive scheme with few benefits and little support will be disastrous – as will Labour's idiotic policy of capping the project at £50 billion, which raises the horrifying prospect of stopping the job half way through.
There is a good reason why policies go through trial by parliamentary scrutiny, trial by media scrutiny and trial by popular scrutiny. Good cases hold up, and tend to either maintain or increase their support under fire. When a case unravels, and its supporters start to lower their hands, however, it is time to change tack.